Lebanon's Christian opposition leader Michel Aoun told a huge anti-government rally in Beirut on Friday that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his cabinet had to resign.
"I call on the prime minister and his ministers to quit," Aoun said to the cheers of protesters in central Beirut.
"Siniora must resign and be replaced by a Sunni prime minister who better understands the Lebanese social fabric," Aoun said. "We do not criticize him because of his ethnic origin, but due to his deficient performance. He must go, and his ministers must go, in order for a unity government to be established," he added.
Aoun was the only speaker at the rally, which brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to a Beirut central square.
The Lebanese police estimated that 800,000 people attended the rally.
The decision not to have other speakers was motivated by the organizers' desire not to have excessive representation for Hizbullah in the event. Accordingly, the protesters were asked to wave flags of Lebanon only. Nevertheless, a Hizbullah flag or shirt could occasionally be spotted on the crowded streets.
Protestors en route to Beirut (Photo: AFP)
A group of opposition supporters marched to the headquarters of Prime Minister Siniora after the speech had ended, surrounded the building and blocked off the streets leading to it. The protesters threatened not to leave the compound until the PM resigns.
A government source who was at the building said that Siniora, along with several other ministers, were inside.
In his speech, Aoun slammed Siniora and the heavy security that was placed on his offices ahead of the rally: "If only him and his ministers were here with us instead of hiding behind the security forces. If Siniora thinks the people are with him, he shouldn't have sent the army to defend him. However, he does not respect the people's wish."
"We are not shamed of our national slogans. It's true, we are extremists. We are extremists toward safeguarding our sovereignty and the aspiration for free will. We want to be friends with everyone, in the East and West, as long as they respect our free will," Aoun stated.
Aoun proclaimed: "We are acting today in order to return to the government, but not in order to be ministers, but so that we can take part in national decision-making. It doesn't matter if we receive five or eight portfolios."
Opposition groups join forces
Since the early morning hours, armored vehicles surrounded Lebanese PM Siniora’s Beirut offices and hundreds of police officers took up positions in the area as part of an unprecedented security effort in advance of the mass protest.
Hizbullah and their political allies are demanding the establishment of a “national unity government” in which Shiite Muslims have at least one-third representation.
Armored vehicles secure Siniora's office (Photo: AP)
If such a government is installed, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah will have veto power on important issues facing the Lebanese government, as Lebanese law demands a majority of two-thirds to pass decisions – including the decision to topple the government. As well, if one-third of lawmakers resign, the government automatically collapses.
The decision to take to the streets Friday was postponed due to last week’s assassination of Lebanon’s Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. The decision was not accepted as it was announced Thursday by Nasrallah.
Opposition loyalists expressed their joy by firing guns into the air in the southern Beirut neighborhood of Dahiya, Hizbullah’s sanctuary in the capital city.
The opposition did not request a license for the rally from the Lebanese government, claiming that it was “an illegal government and those present will only be convening, and not protesting,” Hizbullah spokesman Hussein Rahal told the London based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat.
Opposition members including Hizbullah, the Shiite Amal movement, and Michel Aoun loyalists, all agreed on an official name for their political camp Thursday; the National Lebanese Opposition Forces.
That was the name they would use in every protest operation which they said would “not stop until the demands, starting with a national unity government, are fulfilled.”